Weight lifting exercises often produce corollary benefits to one another, especially if the same muscle groups are involved. To that extent, there may be no better Powerlifting exercise than the Squat at producing benefits to Olympic Lifting. Not only does squatting create superior lower body strength by requiring the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles to shoulder the majority of the tension and force, the exercise (particularly the Back Squat) also activates many of the anterior and posterior chain muscles of the core mid-section (including abdominals and latissimus dorsi) in order to stabilize and balance the barbell.
We know from our analysis of Olympic Lifting that the style is heavily predicated on leg strength working in accord with hip & core power to keep the athlete balanced and provide for a full range of motion during the execution of maneuvers. The training principles of lower body strength and power inherent in the squat translates to explosive core strength required of Cleans, Snatches, Thrusters and all other forms of dynamic and Olympic lifting.
There is no better way to improve one’s strength and lifting ability in general than through practice and modification. Consistent repetition of varied squatting techniques increases explosive lower body strength and establishes muscle memory that is important for developing proper technique not just for squatting, but for a number of compound lifting exercises.
The Squat’s corollary benefits to Olympic lifting are abundant but one specific form may outclass all the others when it comes to building speed, power and explosiveness – the Squat Clean.
What is a Squat Clean?
The Squat Clean is a composite lift consisting of a Power Clean followed by a Front Squat. Cleans are commonly executed with some type of compound lift following the classic clean to make the exercise more dynamic. Certain strength training regimens like Crossfit utilize these additional compound lifts frequently in their program(s). For instance the Crossfit Power Clean, otherwise known as a Thruster, is a compound lift that begins in the power clean format and transitions into a composite front squat & push press exercise.
The transition of the Squat Clean from a normal power clean into a full front squat is the main focus of the lift because controlling the chaos of the barbell and your body during this transition is the most difficult phase of the exercise. Although the Squat Clean is actually categorized as a form of clean, not squat, the lower body strength and full Range of Motion (ROM) of the extender muscles generated by the squat benefits both the raw power and psychomotor skills necessary for the power the clean.Using momentum created by the clean, the athlete quickly shifts their body under the barbell, catching the weight in a front squat racked shoulder position, and controlling the barbell as the athlete fully transitions from clean to squat.
Key Muscles and Technique
The squat clean is a dynamic, complex exercise that utilizes the full array of major anterior and posterior muscle groups including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, entire abdominal chain including oblique’s and hip flexors, erector spinae muscles, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, deltoids, biceps and triceps. Or in simple terms: the thighs, butt, stomach, hips, lower and upper back, shoulders and arms.
Due to the large number of compound muscle synergies involved and the different fulcrum points and torque created by the exercise, adhering to proper form and technique are important not only for executing the lift, but also (as always) important for minimizing the risks of injury. If you want to achieve all the dynamic benefits the squat clean has to offer, technique and form is paramount?
A common technical flaw of power cleaning occurs when the athlete first grips the bar and doesn’t bring it close enough to the body. This consequently puts strain on the lower back during the ‘First Pull’ phase of the lift. Consequently those that don’t grip the barbell properly are pulling and powering weight without properly stabilizing it against the body, and right off the bat they are behind the eight ball and creating unnecessary challenges in transitioning the clean to the squat.
Any slip or loss of control can cause any number of muscle injuries, pulls, strains and could result in the loss of workout time due to recovery. Morale of the story, familiarize yourself with the progression of the Squat Clean, practice the progression of the Squat Clean, and have a strength coach or physical trainer in your presence the first time you execute the Squat Clean.
How to Perform a Squat Clean
Get Low & Explode UNDER the Bar
Phase I: 1st & 2nd Pulls
- Start in a Power Stance, bent slightly at the knees gripping the barbell about an inch in front of your shins. Keep the bar close to your body as possible on the pull.
- With head looking straight forward, extend vertically using your hips pull the barbell up to the hang clean position using your trapezius muscle in the shoulders and thighs as your guiding leverage point. This is the First Pull of the clean.
- With the barbell thigh high, violently EXPLODE upward through your hips, push your chest out, and shrug your shoulders with as much force as possible to pull the barbell up to a racked position. This is the Second Pull of clean.
Phase II: Accelerating Under Bar
- Unlike a normal power clean, as the barbell continues its vertical ascent you must now prepare to transition your body into a squat once you have racked the bar properly across the shoulders.
- The key to accelerating your body under the bar is the force with which you drive your feet into the ground. In order to accomplish this, STOMP your feet with as much force as possible, this will in essence ‘pull you under the bar.’
- Once you feel your center of gravity firmly under the center of the bar, throw your elbows up and out so they are parallel with the floor, this will naturally catch the barbell so it rests across the clavicles in a racked position. This is the Catch Phase of the clean.
Phase III: Transitioning to Squat
- At this point you would normally be extending your body vertically once you have made the catch, completing the clean, however with a Squat Clean, at this juncture of the lift things become tricky.
- As you drive your feet into the floor and pull yourself under the bar, you must simultaneously dip your body into a fully bottomed-out front squat. It’s very important at this juncture to make sure you are in absolute control of the weight and your center of gravity is directly below the weight or you won’t be able to make the full transition down into a front squat.
- As soon as the squat bottoms out, explode up through the bar into a vertical position.
- It is important you do not pause at the bottom of the squat or you won’t be able to drive yourself back up.
- With your body in the vertical standing position, bar racked across the shoulders, drop your hips and lower the barbell back into a Hang Clean starting position and repeat the exercise from the hang clean stance.
Tips: Try to make the motion from the beginning through the end as smooth as possible. Try not to make starts and stops, but continue the exercise through in one fluid motion. Keep the weight close to your body throughout the lift. Do not extend the weight out during the clean part of the squat clean. Learn the exercise in stages, few people will be able to do the entire lift, their first time. Practice each stage and build muscle memory for each phase.
See our discussion and full analysis (including step by step foot, hand and body positioning) of the Clean here, and the Front Squat here.
Benefits of the Squat Clean
One of the true benefits of the squat clean over the classic squat is the increase in the full range of motion (ROM), functional strength and shear lower body strength of the exercise. Where cleans produce functional strength and explosiveness through dynamic maneuvers, the squat tests absolute lower body strength and is more effective at building muscle mass in the thighs. Both exercises involve a high degree or ROM but the torque and acceleration of both are different, and hence produce different strength and agility gains.
Combining the two lifts into a single compound exercises amplifies the explosive strength properties inherent in the Power Clean by adding additional leg resistance in the form of squatting force that otherwise would be absent without dipping into a full squat position before powering back up vertically. The exaggerated range of the squat clean also improves the athlete’s stamina, balance, complexity of motion and range of motion; augmenting the individual benefits of each lift to create new strength hurdles and improved performance within individual muscle groups.
A classic Front Squat focuses on the quads, hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles. The squat clean activates those same muscle chains but also activates the full abdominal chain, hip flexors, erector spinae, deltoids and lats.
The combination of benefits arising from the squat clean, like many other compound lifts, is a hallmark of Crossfit’s strength training curriculum, targeting combinations of muscle groups through varied movements for a more efficient, streamlined workout. The squat clean is not meant to build great muscle mass, it’s meant to balance the strength gains over longer muscle chains and through more functional movements to build agility and explosiveness while stimulating the stabilizer muscles in the back and shoulders.
Power Clean, Front Squat & Other Lifting Ratios
When learning a new lifting exercise for the first time several important factors play into the success of how well you grasp and can perform the lift. Along with developing proper technique and form, understanding your max weight is critical to preventing injury, setting a baseline for future benchmarks, and being generally successful at building strength through the exercise. But how do you know what weight to target, let alone max out at, if you are new to an exercise or have never performed it?
Luckily there are ratio’s based off what a skilled weightlifter would be able to lift that help us answer these questions. For a brief primer in Power Lifting & Olympic Lifting ratios, see (here)
With that said, it’s is important to understand your Power Clean and Front Squat max in order to properly calculate your target Squat Clean weight. Knowing one’s maxes are beneficial to drawing up the optimal Squat Clean workout that is scalable according to your own abilities and which builds strength and power that is transferable across the entire spectrum of Cleans.
Most killed athletes will have a Power Clean to Front Squat Ratio between 80 – 85%; meaning they are able to Power Clean 80 – 85% of their Front Squat max. Some skilled athletes can Power Clean 90% (and above) their Front Squat max. Therefore the ideal Squat Clean weight that should be targeted should be as close to 90% of your Front Squat max as possible.
Again, these ratios are obviously based off skilled athletes who put a lot of time in the weight room but if you live in a big city where your Crossfit Box monthly membership is north of $250 you might as well strive to reach professional levels, right?
Squat Clean vs Power Clean
Is one better than the other at achieving my strength and fitness goals?
The short answer is no, both exercises work the same muscle groups, however as we’ve already addressed, the difference in execution between these two cleans is important to understand for targeting specific aspects of leg strength and explosive power.
The Squat Clean obviously includes the extra movement of a front squat in addition to the clean, but is that an improvement over the standard hang or power clean? Again, it depends what your objectives are. If you are looking to find ways to add powerlifting leg exercises to your overall strength training program, the Squat Clean is a phenomenal exercise to work into your clean routine because it includes the additional utility of a squat, increasing the overall strength gains of the lower body. On those days you find yourself short on workout time, the Squat Clean can be a great compound exercise for killing two birds with one stone, allowing you to combine your clean and squat reps.
However, if your WOD goals for that particular day are to develop explosive power and functional strength, the Power Clean has the Squat Cleans number. Some will find this counterintuitive as we just stated the Squat Clean is better at building strength in the adductors, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, however building muscle strength through heavy powerlifting exercises is different that building functional strength through Olympic lifting exercises. Because the Power Clean does not require dipping into a full front squat which creates greater torque on the lower body and slows down the movement of the lift, it allows the athlete to power the weight in a single continuous explosion that is executed at a higher velocity.
Requiring the hips, glutes and thighs to work at higher velocities increases the intensity at which these muscle groups’ contract and creates a quicker ‘fast twitch’ strength within the muscles. This type of fast twitch strength is preferred by athletes in many cases compared to building sheer thigh and leg strength because the fast twitch muscle gains translate into athletic speed and strength in the athlete. Where building leg strength is important for overall function and fitness, building fast twitch leg strength is important for improving speed, quickness and agility..